Nixon’s Jewish Problem
“The Jews are just a very aggressive and abrasive and obnoxious personality,” he told an aide.
“Most Jewish people are insecure. And that’s why they have to prove things,” he said.
“I didn’t notice many Jewish names coming back from Vietnam on any of those lists; I don’t know how the hell they avoid it,” he remarked.
When then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “If [the Soviets] put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” Nixon concurred. “I know,” he responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.” (See the Dec. 11 New York Times story for more background.)
For reporters of a certain age, the recent release of 265 hours of Nixon tapes gives new life to dormant hatreds and lapsed interests. For them, it’s a little like hearing “River Deep, Mountain High” on the radio for the first time in a decade. You haven’t thought much about it since the last time you heard it, but the totality of the experience stuns you for a few moments. Then you return to whatever you were doing before and forget it until the next time.
Nixon’s reflexive animus against Jews has been documented ever since (subscription required) the Watergate era. But I hesitate to call it anti-Semitism—not out of defense for Nixon but because I think it’s something potentially worse.
Give a listen to the way Nixon talked about members of the tribe:
Going after all these Jews. Just find one that is a Jew, will you … —July 2, 1971
The Jews are born spies. You notice how many of them are? They’re just in it up to their necks. … Also, an arrogance, an arrogance that says—that’s what makes a spy. He puts himself above the law. —July, 5, 1971
Bob, please get me the names of the Jews, you know, the big Jewish contributors of the Democrats. … All right. Could we please investigate some of the cocksuckers? —Sept. 13, 1971
Good. What about the rich Jews? … You see, IRS is full of Jews, Bob. … That’s what I think. I think the reason they’re after [the Rev. Billy] Graham is the rich Jews. —Sept. 14, 1971
This is national security, you bet we have. We’ve got all sorts of activities because we’ve been trying to run this town by avoiding the Jews in the government, because there were very serious questions. —March 29, 1973
There are some Jews, that you, that you might, as you might have guessed, doesn’t mean that if there were some Gentiles it might not be this bad. There are some Jews in New York [who wanted an anti-trust suit] because [industrial and Nixon friend Robert] Abplanalp … makes the best valve at the cheapest price. —July 11, 1973
The first quotation, Stanley I. Kutler tells us in his book Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, comes as Nixon muses about his plan to revive the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate the Pentagon Papers leak. Nixon not only wants to find the leakers; he wants to find Jewish leakers.
When Nixon finds out one of his daughters has been volunteering at a museum, he tells H.R. Haldeman, “The arts, you know—they’re Jews, they’re left wing—in other words, stay away” (July 23, 1972). When the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, White House tapes captured Nixon lashing out at Times Washington bureau chief Max Frankel and forbidding his staff from talking to the paper. ”Don’t give them anything,” Nixon said. ”And because of that damned Jew Frankel all the time—he’s bad, you know. Don’t give him anything.”
When Judge Murray I. Gurfein was assigned to the Pentagon Papers case, Nixon said, “I like Gurfein fine. … He’s a Jew, a liberal. But I think tough. I think tough. But he may be sucking up to the liberal left. In New York, you just can’t tell what happens to those guys.” From the same batch of White House tapes, Nixon broadcast his notion that Jews are born traitors. “The Jews are all over the government,” Nixon said. “Most Jews are disloyal.” After explaining that his Jews—Kissinger, White House counsel Leonard Garment, and speechwriter William Safire—could be trusted, he said, “But, Bob, generally speaking, you can’t trust the bastards. They turn on you. Am I wrong or right?”
And this from the tapes: “The only two non-Jews in the Communist conspiracy … were [Whittaker] Chambers and [Alger] Hiss. Many felt that Hiss was. He could have been a half, but he was not by religion. The only two non-Jews. Every other one was a Jew. And it raised hell with us.” And : “There’s a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this, working with people like [Federal Reserve Board Chairman Arthur] Burns and the rest. And they all only talk to Jews.”
Even when Nixon isn’t hating on Jews, he’s got his Jewdar turned up high to make sure he knows when they’re in his proximity. In 1972, aide H.R. Haldeman thinks out loud about a New York Times reporter, commenting that the writer has a “Jewish name,” Nixon cautioned him. “You can’t tell that way.” (Regular readers of Slate need not be reminded of Nixon’s adventures in Jew-counting, as documented since 2001 by our own Timothy Noah.)
Nixon has never lacked Jewish defenders. Just six months ago, writer Ben Stein, the son of Herbert Stein, the head of the Council of Economic Advisers under Nixon, pooh-poohed the Jew-counting story that Noah has so determinedly tracked. Wrote Stein:
Now, bear in mind, Nixon was by far the best friend the Jewish people have ever had since Abraham. He had the most Jewish appointees to high offices, the most pro-Israel foreign and defense policy in history, saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War, put Russia at bay about helping Egypt in that war—was just the best friend Jews have ever had, including Jews themselves.
Alas, being actively pro-Israel doesn’t automatically exonerate Nixon from anti-Semitism. For one thing, he and Kissinger were playing a global board game with the Soviets in those years, and the Soviets were backing Egypt. An Israeli defeat would have been an American defeat, too. For another, Nixon didn’t want to go down in history as the American president who “lost” Israel and put the Jewish people in peril.
To be open-minded about Nixon, let’s go ahead and put his support of Israel in the asset side of his anti-Semitism account.
What then to make of his long list of Jewish appointees? In a newspaper interview last year promoting his book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, Norman Podhoretz beat Stein to the punch on Nixon’s defense of Israel but added that Nixon “was the kind of anti-Semite who thought that Jews were smarter than everybody else. That’s why he had Kissinger. That’s why he had Arthur Burns, Herb Stein. … A lot of Nixon’s anti-Semitism is talk. … His anti-Semitism consisted of resentment of Jews for being liberals and hating him. It’s not the traditional kind of anti-Semitism.” [Emphasis added.]
Podhoretz is half, maybe three-quarters right. Nixon did seem to believe Jews were exceptionally smart, although these views were obviously colored by the fact that most of his encounters with Jews in his adult life were with successful Jews. Did he similarly extrapolate from his encounters with successful Catholics that they were brilliant, too? Mormons? Cubans? Armenians?
Did Nixon really need a one-syllable abbreviation for “Jewish liberal,” as Podhoretz seems to imply? I think not. Whenever I read White House tapes I have the temptation to put Nixon on the couch and ask whether his vitriol for Jews came bundled with his personal insecurities. We know he grew up poor and resentful and that those resentments only grew as he found himself surrounded by swells at the Duke law school and the well-bred know-it-alls on Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom. There was no shortage of specific and genuine Nixon White House enemies. Why blast Jews so persistently?
Plenty of American Jews understood that Nixon didn’t like them. In his book Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House, speechwriter Safire notes the “indefinable suspicion” of many Jews that “Nixon just doesn’t like Jews.” Were they accurately gauging Nixon’s prejudices or picking up on something else? Nixon White House counsel Leonard Garment sought an asterisk for his old boss and old friend’s behavior because Nixon was, as Garment wrote in 1999, “an extraordinarily angry politician” who “was a champion, equal-opportunity hater.” Garment continues:
Mainly, he hated liberals, reserving his most intense hatred for journalists, academics and government bureaucrats, all of whom had returned the favor over years of partisan combat. Nixon thought Jews overrepresented in all these populations. He could not resist making the fevered connection.
He could not resist making the fevered connection. Why the hell not? I can understand extending this sort of excuse to an uneducated knuckle-dragger, but the graduate of a prestigious law school who had served in the House, the Senate, and two terms as vice president? Garment forgives Nixon’s private anti-Semitism because it “found virtually no correspondence in his speech or actions outside those explosions.”
Nixon obviously possessed more control over his connection-making than Garment gives him credit for. Why else didn’t he ever play the anti-Semite in public? Because he knew it was wrong! Nixon beat up on Jews because he knew, as an accomplished demagogue, that it would stir the animal passions of those around him. Reading the transcripts, you can see members of his inner-ring second his Jew-baiting without a whisper of dissent. As Nixon transgresses—and there can be no mistake that he knows that he’s transgressing, because, as Garment points out, he never talks like this outside of the White House bunker—his underlings transgress with him.
As Satan worshippers will tell you, there’s no bonding like the bonding over something indecent. Performing inside the proscenium arch of the Oval Office, Nixon draws his aides into his darkness—not that it took that much effort. Ripping on Jews is a Nixon loyalty test: Can his staff pass it? He consciously sets Jews up as objects of hatred and loathing for political ends (where have we heard that story before?), hardening his men to go wherever he wants them to go to do whatever he wants done.
Nixon’s routine vilification of Jews for political gain wasn’t anti-Semitism. It was something worse.